Art or child porn?

In Australia recently, there has been heated debate about a series of
photographs of naked and semi-naked children by photographer Bill
Henson
. The debate was reignited this month when Art Monthly, a major
Australian art magazine, decided to put a picture of a nude 6 year old
girl on its front cover. Politicians have attacked the photographs and
the magazine’s editors

Much of the discussion has focussed on the question of whether such photographs are ‘art’, on the intent of the artist, and on the question of whether the children photographed are capable of consent. Defenders of the photographs have pointed out that the photograph on Art Monthly’s cover was taken by the girl’s mother, and argued that her intent was clearly not to titillate or produce pornography. The girl herself, Olympia, who is now 11 years old, has supported the photograph’s publication. However both these questions can be seen as distractions.

Let us imagine that there are a new set of photographs of naked young children that an artist wishes to publish in a book. We have a powerful lie-detector that is capable of determining with complete accuracy the artistic intent of a given artist, and this confirms that the artist honestly means this as artistic expression. Furthermore let us imagine that in fact the pictures themselves were taken as family photos 10 years ago, but not published until now. The child whose photographs were taken is now 18 years old, and has given full informed consent for his image to be used in this way.

Yet there may still be good reasons for such photographs not to be published. The important ethical question is whether the public display of this sort of material poses a significant risk of harm to the children concerned, or to other children. It is hard to know whether the Henson photographs or the Art Monthly cover would actually encourage those who would abuse children (in the era of the internet there are far more disturbing images readily available). Yet it is also plausible that they could be used in this way. Given the seriousness of child sexual abuse, it may be prudent to err on the side of caution. This is not prudishness or moral hysteria. It is an acknowledgment that even serious art may have undesirable consequences.


Art or abuse? Fury over image of naked girl
The Independent 7/7/08

Maurice O’Riordan’s view on nude children as art wrong Daily Telegraph 10/7/08

Art saves us from moralism, says Bill Henson
news.com.au 10/7/08

Rudd vs art critic over child nudity 7/7/08

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One Response to Art or child porn?

  • Duckrabbit says:

    But there are other consequences to consider too, right? To me, Bill Henson’s photos convey a tremendous amount of compassion and respect for his subjects. Who knows, maybe they could inspire child abusers to see their victims in a different light — even to identify with them? If this is true, then it’s hard to know what constitutes “erring on the side of caution.” And this, without even raising any of the other issues that we need to be cautious about here. (Precedents of censorship?)

    Isn’t this, after all, the Kantian response to utilitarianism? The consequences of our actions are varied and unpredictable. I wouldn’t argue that consequences aren’t irrelevant to moral arguments like these, but they aren’t the bottom line, either.

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